NFL Preview: New England Patriots

To say last season was disappointing for the New England Patriots would only be the beginning. First came the disappointing loss to the Jets in week two. Then the overtime loss to Denver that never should have happened. Then came Bill Belichek’s infamous decision to go for a fourth down conversion against the Colts. Then there was the epic fail against the Saints on Monday Night Football. So when WR Wes Welker suffered a freak injury with no contact in a meaningless week 17 game, it was not too shocking.

The Patriots are licking their wounds, to be sure. They are praying that QB Tom Brady will return to 2007 form, a level which he did not even approach last season. They hope that Welker will return to top form after a freak knee injury, something Brady could not accomplish last year. They really hope Darrelle Revis sits on his couch all season, lest the Jets morph into contenders and challenge New England’s division title. On top of all of that, they hope they can forget a humiliating playoff opener, a 33-14 home blowout at the hands of the Ravens.

Needless to say New England has a lot they’re hoping for this season. Since David Tyree’s unforgettable helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII, the Pats have been losing their mojo by the gallon. But here’s the good sign. Brady’s knee injury should be absolutely behind him, as is often the case with ACL tears after two years. The Pats have a rough schedule—they face Minnesota, San Diego, Baltimore Pittsburgh and Indy in a six week span—but they have enough easy games to pull off ten, eleven, perhaps even twelve wins. And the defense is getting younger and sharper, a welcome shift from the aging, creaky D’s of the past few years.

That said, the Pats are at a chilling crossroads. They could easily pull off the aforementioned 10-12 win season and contend for AFC dominance, but they could also regress violently, falling prey to a lethal Jets defense and missing the playoffs entirely. It really all hinges on one guy.

Surprise! It’s Tom Brady

I’ve seen a majority of the Patriots games over the past few years, including pretty much every single 2007 game. The difference between 2007 Brady and 2009 Brady was downright jarring. It wasn’t even his throwing mechanics, it was his confidence. 2007 Tom Brady would stand tall in the pocket and trust his blockers, waiting the extra few seconds he needed to make the best possible throw even as defenders bull rushed him. 2009 Brady faces the blitz like a guy who’s afraid of getting hurt.

The fact of the matter is that the Patriots have been declining for a few years. But 2007 Tom Brady was so transcendent that he covered every weakness the Pats had. But when opposing defenses disrupted his timing by blitzing the hell out of him (which is how the Ravens won the wild card game by the way), the whole offense sputtered and the defense could not keep pace. That’s how losses piled up for the Pats last year.

The fact is that a diminished Brady is still an elite QB. But a team featuring 2009 Tom Brady, a weak running game and an iffy defense is not going to storm Cowboy Stadium on Super Sunday. And considering the running game isn’t going to transform overnight and the defense is too young to dominate just yet, the Pats will go as far as Brady will take them. And I think the fact that we’re wondering how far that is is exactly why Pats fans are nervous about their team right now. If Brady even approaches his 2007 peak, New England will contend for the conference. Otherwise, they won’t sniff the Super Bowl. That’s all there is to it.

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